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Essential Pärt

In the 1960s, although largely cut off from contemporary Western classical music, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b1935) experimented with the then fashionable musical genres of serialism, collage, neo-classicism and aggressive dissonance – styles which confirmed his modernist credentials, but set him at odds with the Soviet authorities.Read more…

Frustrated with the dry "children's games" of the avant-garde, and, as a reaction to this and in an attempt to find his own compositional style, he went into self-imposed creative exile, during which he explored the traditions, both musical and cultural, he was most drawn to: Gregorian chant, harmonic simplicity, and his Russian Orthodox faith. What emerged was a distinctive and unique compositional voice: the music of "little bells", or "tintinnabuli", heard for the first time in his piano miniature 'Für Alina'. This piece set the seed from which his most famous music grew – 'Spiegel im Spiegel', 'Fratres', 'Summa', and 'Tabula Rasa'.

It's easy to dismiss Pärt's music as simplistic, sentimental and clichéd "holy minimalism", but his music's power lies in both its absolute simplicity and the austere rigour applied to its construction. And here Pärt was harking back to his explorations in serialism, devising his own strict rules to control the movement of harmonic voices within the music. As a result, his music sounds both archaic and avant-garde, capturing the ancient sounds and Gregorian chants of monasteries in a way that is strikingly modern and minimalist. The music has a spare, profound and meditative expressivity, from hauntingly simple pieces for solo piano to elaborately layered works for full orchestra – all of it unique, atmospheric and compelling.

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